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#135 The Pitmen Painters

September 23, 2011
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A play for anyone who's ever wondered why abstract art of a circle in a square is 'better' than a picture of a terrier. What if you put the terrier in the circle, eh? What then?

Howay, man! This touring NT production is at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre this weekend, before moving to the West End. It’s well worth a visit.

The Pitmen Painters is about the Ashington Group, the north-eastern miners who became a UK media phenomenon in the 1930s and 40s. They produced paintings that seemed to change what art could be. They came to embody a progressive, demotic approach to self-expression: in the Britain of the future, it seemed to say, everyone will be able to make beautiful things, not just those with money and time.

Here, we see them convene for an art appreciation class which soon becomes a painting workshop – and develops into a fully-fledged ‘school’ of painting, with themes and an aesthetic all its own. We see this through the actions of five local men and their breezily patrician southern art teacher.

The reason this slightly worthy-sounding story crackles on stage is because it’s falling over itself with energy and emotion. These are men who have never really seen paintings before: they argue passionately about what they should paint, what counts as art, how you know if it’s any good, whether they should bother, how much their art is worth, and above all what all this art actually means. It’s every question you’ve ever asked yourself about art, and there are no easy answers here: only fascinating questions and fiery debates.

This is by Lee Hall, writer of Billy Elliot, and with its themes of working class aspiration, the arts and economic hardship, it feels like a spiritual prequel to Billy Elliot (no, not in a bad way). Ultimately, though, it’s more discursive and wide-ranging and enlightened. In fact, it’s about enlightenment.

The best thing about this is that it feels like the product of a truly national theatre – a story about our cultural life and history, art and people. As for Lee Hall, he’s busy working with Elton John on his ‘non-linear and hyper-visual’ bio-pic. A story about a bloke named Reg who reinvents himself as an artist? Sounds about right to me.

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